The combination of a region renowned for its natural beauty, my increasingly homebody tendencies, and a boyfriend with a car meant I was able to travel around a fair bit this year without really going far. Instead of jetting around European destinations during long weekends, I took advantage of my backyard to discover Spain’s northwestern region of Catalonia.
And damn is it a stunner.
Most people make Barcelona the star of the show when they visit the area. But if you’re staying for longer than a few days, or are living in Barcelona and need a change of scenery, here are my favorite places for day-trips from Barcelona, which could easily be turned into weekend getaways if you want to dig a little deeper.
My Favorite Day-Trips From Barcelona
We’ll start with the universally agreed-upon show-stopper of the Costa Brava, the little whitewashed fishing village that actually might make you put all your belongings on the market and make a permanent move to Catalonia. The village captivated the greats like Picasso, Dalí, and Hemingway; today it continues enthralling the rest of us mere mortals. City dwellers escape to the popular destination on weekends; tourists lick the fresh seafood from their fingertips after wining and dining in the open sun overlooking the cove. Cadaqués is on all the postcards for a reason.
Drive: About 2 hours from Barcelona, near the French border. The road gets curvy at the end so bring a strong stomach or a barf bag.
Do: Explore the winding streets; eat a seafood lunch on the waterfront; visit Salvador Dalí’s house, now turned into a museum, a bit on the outskirts of the town.
Tossa de Mar
My personal favorite. For a while I was skeptical, saying nothing could really beat Cadaqués. Except then I went to Tossa and was forced to change allegiance. Because a perfect rocky coastline and fishing village charm isn’t enough, Tossa includes a walled medieval city within its larger borders. From the lighthouse up top, you’ll have sweeping views of the turquoise canvas below. You can also walk for as long as you want on a stretch of trail called the Camino de Ronda, which links up many towns along the Costa Brava. I recommend going up the trail just a bit to glimpse a view of beach, castle, and cove, all in one frame.
Drive: About an hour and 20 minutes from Barcelona.
Do: Relax at the main beach, ranked by National Geographic as one of the world’s top 25 beaches. Or venture to the little cove on the other side of the medieval city, which has a much smaller stretch of sand but is more secluded, and you can see right to the bottom of the water. Tossa’s main attraction is the old walled city, which is free to enter.
Cerdanya is a region of the Pyrenees mountain range that I visited on a whim in May and ended up questioning why I hadn’t ventured into the mountains sooner.
I went with the boyfriend for a weekend getaway. We stayed at the Cerdanya Resort Hotel Muntanya & Spa, a lux lodging option in Prullans, a tiny village with a bakery, a “convenience store” (a generous description) and not much else. The thing is, you don’t want much else. It was the perfect mountain setting to really get away. The views from the room were unparalleled, and I remembered what quiet sounded like. (And as I write this, the construction workers in the apartment next to me are are jackhammering my bedroom wall.)
Normally I’m against resorts on principle. The idea of overindulgence, debaucherous vacationers and exploitation of native workers (in some cases) turns me off. But Cerdanya Mountain Resort should best be called a rustic lodge with inclusive amenities. I loved it. The place adapted to its’ serene surroundings beautifully, providing conveniences that a town with about 100 resident simply can’t, but without going over-the-top.
We took advantage of the resort spa, played paddle (a popular Catalan sport closely related to tennis), ate filling and flavorful spreads of traditional fare in the resort’s dining area, and hiked an embarrassingly short amount up a small incline and were sore the next day. I think sitting in the spa’s jacuzzi made me sweat the equivalent amount.
Drive: About 2 hours from Barcelona.
Do: HIKE, you lazybones! You’re in the Pyrenees, so don’t do what I did and cut the trek short after an hour and a half. But if that’s too much for you, of course, head directly to the spa. You deserve it.
Stay: Hotel Muntanya & Spa
Leave one city and head to another. Think stoney Ireland meets colorful Venice—that image isn’t just a pipe dream in Girona. It’s much smaller than Barcelona, so you can enjoy an urban feel without the overwhelming hustle and bustle. Plus, it’s medieval. I’ll admit to an undiagnosed obsession with all things medieval. They’re filming part of Game of Thrones Season 6 in Girona, so between that and its molecular restaurant Can Roca being named the best in the world, tourism is about to explode.
Drive: One hour from Barcelona.
Do: Walk on the medieval wall surrounding the old city. If you visit in May, Girona’s Temps de Flores festival is not to be missed. The entire place is covered in flowers, making an already beautiful city irresistible.
Indulge: While reservations for Can Roca run a year out, hit up Rocambolesc for the most fabulous, and famous, gelato in all of Spain. It’s owned by the brother of the owner of Can Roca, who himself was named the best pastry chef in Spain. Why does one family get all the talent.
And while I melted over their gelato, I’m also partial to a specialty frozen yogurt shop on the other side of the canal called La Recuitería. Recuit is a type of Catalan curd and has a slightly different flavor than normal yogurt. They make it so fresh there you can basically taste the utters. But “curd” and “coagulation” are not happy food words so you just have to taste it to believe me. Plus, their frozen treats comes with unlimited toppings.
Honorable Mentions for Day-Trips From Barcelona:
Not every place can enchant me like Tossa de Mar and Girona. But there are others that deserve a shout-out:
Besalú. I’ve waxed poetic about this town in my post That Time I Witnessed a Game of Thrones Episode. (And now the irony is that Game of Thrones is actually coming to the region. Trendsetter, methinks.) There’s not much going on in Besalú beyond the medieval festival in late summer, but it’s still a jaw-droppingly beautiful medieval town. Ok enough already. Is anything in Catalonia not medieval?!
Empuriabrava. Empuriabrava lies a bit further south down the coast from Cadaqués, and brings its own unique feel to the region. 24 kilometers of canals wind their way throughout the town and if you’re the proud owner of a brand new yacht, you may just want to park it here for good.
Roses. Situated on the gulf of the same name near the French border, Roses is popular for its beaches and natural beauty due to its startling rocky coastline. As a plus, the town is one of the few to face west, thanks to its position on the cove, so you can finally (finally!) catch a beach sunset in Catalonia.
Tarragona. Ok I’ve never actually been to this city, for shame! My getaways tended to lead me up the coast from Barcelona, not down. But Tarragona is supposed to be a lovely city brimming with ancient Roman ruins. And it’s much smaller than Barcelona, so again, perfect if you’re looking for a relaxing getaway but don’t want to be plunked down in the middle of nowhere.
Have you ever been to these places, or other towns in Catalonia? Do you have any you’d add to the list?